From the Department of Fine Cinema
In honor of the new year and the fact that there simply aren’t enough best of lists out there, here’s a lengthy consideration of what was most notable in film during 2006. Will follow with a similar consideration on books later in the week, regular opinionating to continue next week. And so…
The Year in Film – 2006
The Top 10
1. Three Times – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s dazzling triumph is a triptych of ruminations on love that challenges assumptions about everything from the nature of cinema to that of romance itself. Each segment uses the same two actors and frames them within a simple romantic melodrama but sets it in a different period in Taiwanese history; the first in 1966, second in 1911, and the last in 2005. Each reflects the filmmaker’s eye for long, woozy takes and sumptuous emotionalism; in a perfect world he would be getting the acclaim shoveled at Wong Kar-Wai.
2. Inside Man and Children of Men – Two of the year’s greatest films had several things in common: intensely innovative stories that still worked within the confines of their particular genres (heist thriller and dystopic sci-fi epic), inventive master directors at the top of their games (Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuarón), and, of course, the great Clive Owen in a starring role. These films represent mainstream Hollywood at its best.
3. Brick – If this astoundingly unique high school noir is anything to judge by, debut filmmaker Rian Johnson will be somebody to watch. Featuring a cool-handed performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt — who did similarly fantastic work in last year’s Mysterious Skin, Brick has a knotty crime story and obscure dialect all its own; at once acknowledging its debt to hard-boiled crime fiction and still announcing its independence from any one influence. Raymond Chandler would have been proud.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro has a gift for gore, fully explored in shallow Hollywood fare like Hellboy, but also combined with a powerful humanism in The Devil’s Backbone and this potent mix of fairytale and WWII story. A lost girl, underground lairs, a demonic army officer/father figure, partisans hiding in the dark dark woods and a fairy kingdom lurking just below the surface of reality. Shiver-inducing.
5. The Proposition – Like Sam Peckinpah with a heart. Director John Hillcoat amps up the violence in Nick Cave’s blood-drenched script — a revenge-filled Western set in the Aussie outback — but leavens it by paying unusual attention to the human relationships between his characters; these aren’t simply figures to put on horseback against an iconic sunset. Emily Watson, Ray Winstone and Guy Pearce stand out amidst a crowded and talented thespian backbench in this thoroughly gorgeous and disturbing allegory for the vile price of civilization.
6. United 93 – Eschewing false drama, casting real people or little-known actors, operating in something close to real time, and leaving ideology at the door, this is a film that cuts disturbingly close to the bone; explaining why distressingly few people went to see it. One would hope that Paul Greengrass remembers to return to this kind of drama more often between making Bourne sequels (though he should definitely continue doing that as well).
7. Volver – Like most of Pedro Almodovar’s other films which celebrate the strength of women and a tragically comic view of the universe, only even better. Also: Penelope Cruz proves she can be a fantastic actress, as long as she sticks with her native language.
8. A Prairie Home Companion – Robert Altman’s graceful and hilarious swan song is one of his few films that bears the strong mark of a collaborator, Garrison Keillor as writer and co-star, in this case, and it’s all the stronger for it.
9. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick’s paranoid 70s druggie sci-fi as seen through Richard Linklater’s addictive, watery Impressionist filter. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson take part in some hilarious squabbling that replicates the music of Dick’s precise dialogue almost perfectly from the printed page. Literary and yet perfectly cinematic, the result is almost a new way of looking at film and ultimately a much more rewarding usage of this animation technique than Linklater’s awe-inspiring but unfulfilling Waking Life.
10. The War Tapes – A viciously honest documentary about National Guardsmen fighting in Iraq that has something in it to offend all political persuasions — the hallmark of truth.
Honorable Mentions: Somersault, An Inconvenient Truth, The Prestige, Tristram Shandy, Little Children, The Case of the Grinning Cat, The Good German, Clean, Black Gold, The Bridesmaid, The Good Shepherd, Notes on a Scandal, The King, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fateless, Jesus Camp
Most overrated: Babel
Most overlooked: Don’t Come Knocking
Worst foreign film: The Promise
Best film almost ruined by Jack Nicholson: The Departed
Most overly whimsical: The Science of Sleep
Best comeback: Inland Empire
Least funny: American Dreamz
Best DVD releases: Kicking & Screaming and The Wire: Season Three
Least informative documentary: Who Killed the Electric Car?
Most punk: American Hardcore
Best and worst Iraq films: Iraq in Fragments and Home of the Brave
Worst film of the year: Tideland